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The Witcher - First Impressions
I heard about The Witcher quite some time ago, but had passed on playing it largely due to the DRM. Now that the Super Producer's Director's Enhanced Ultimate Extended Cut Edition has been released, and (as far as I can tell) contains no DRM, I've finally picked it up. Actually, to be entirely truthful, the half-off sale on Impulse was a big part of my decision, too. The Witcher is a 2007 PC RPG that is something an oddity - it's a Polish-made game based on a series of Polish-written fantasy novels. It apparently uses the Neverwinter Nights Aurora engine, but bears little in common with it. There are precious few titles made outside of North America, the UK, and Japan that find any success in the English-speaking world, and Witcher, something of a sleeper RPG hit, is one of those. It's a very strange bird, one I'm enjoying quite a bit, though it has its less than positive quirks.

In the less-than-positive category, there are, well, the production values. And the dialogue. The graphics for the game are actually pretty good... by and large. Graphics are, generally speaking, an easy and immediate barometer of the overall quality of the game. A game with dated graphics probably has dated production values in other areas, as its likely low budget. The Witcher, however, has pretty good graphics and quite inconsistent and rather low production values at times. The writing for the game often sounds like it was done by an overzealous adolescent with a penchant for trying really hard to make Geralt sound like badass. Maybe something was lost in translation, I don't know, but I often find the exchanges cringe-worthy - in part because the voice acting is equally bad. Combat doesn't really feel that wonderful, either; the feedback is rather iffy at best. I'll often click to start an attack, and my character will hesitate for whatever reason, so I'll click again, which will then cancel the attack that I apparently did start despite the game not doing much to indicate that. Just as often, I'll click to attack and nothing will ever happen, so I'm screwed either way. There are other issues with the game in general, too: minor bugs, the sound being extremely loud in general (particularly the goddamn main menu clicks), and the interface sometimes being obtuse and poorly laid out.

The setting is also not all that great. It's horribly generic dark fantasy, for the most part, complete with elves and ghouls and magic, and, dear god I am not making this up, dwarven smiths with really long beards and Scottish accents. I mean, really? Really? Please at least put in some sort of good faith effort to be something other than comical cliche. The world's pretty gritty, with hookers and rapists and random drunks saying "your mom sucks dwarven cock!" and a meathead exclaiming that he "once fucked a she-elf." I'm all for realism, but the dark tone here once again borders on over-eager adolescent fantasy.

Borders on. I'm actually going to give it a pass, because it leads into two of the game's greatest features. One of my biggest gripes with RPGs that have "morality" systems, such as Knight of the Old Republic and Fable, is that their morality systems are jokes. They offer you two extremes: A) Risk life and limb to save puppy from being beaten, and then adopt puppy and shower it with love, or B) murder the men threatening the puppy, then rape, beat, cook, and eat said puppy in front of the boy who owns it. You are either a glowering demon complete with horns and red eyes - quite literally in the case of Fable - or a saint with a halo and a white robe. Uh, again, literally in the case of Fable. That's not morality, that's not a choice, that's a caricature. Pick a ridiculously over the top role to play and play it.

The Witcher, on the other hand, puts a great deal of emphasis on gray morality. Will you support the man who raped a woman, or the one who sold her out for coin? I don't want to give away any more details for fear of spoiling things, but the situations aren't black and white, they're different shades of gray. When presented with my first major choice, I didn't instantly click the "be a good guy" option, I actually sat and contemplated my choices, trying to decide who I believed, whose crimes were greater, who deserved what. One instance of that interests me far more than five games of "kill or free the slave?"

Further compounding the requirement that you actually think through your decisions is that fact that they have real consequences for the game. And by that I do not mean that you get 200 gold instead of a ruby ring after finishing the fight following the choice, I mean plot-altering effects on down the road. Some six to ten hours of play time after I made one choice - that I didn't even realize would have any consequence - I was met with the results of my action. A source of information that I needed was dead because I had given rebels access to weapons and supplies. Whoops! Again, that, to me, is far more interesting than getting a different reward ten minutes later. I'm not going to replay ten hours of game time. That means that I actually have to live with whatever choice I make, rather than reload a save and do it again. That gives the entire thing far, far more weight than it would have otherwise.

Those are the main points of the game, really, and I greatly appreciate them. The dialogue creates those situations, I suppose, even if it's sometimes poor, and the combat could feel way, way better, and the production values aren't all that at times, but the leveling and crafting are a lot of fun, and the world is kind of fun to explore, even if it's a bit generic. I'm still only in act two of five, but I'm quite enjoying The Witcher thus far. If nothing else, it's a bit of a different perspective on the fantasy RPG genre than North America and Japan typically offer.

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The Mistake That is Inferno and the Auction House

Diablo 3 - Improvements, Changes, and Problems

Glen Cook - Chronicles of the Black Company

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Explosions in the Sky - Live 4/11/11